Milorad Dodik.jpg
Bosnian Serb entity president Milorad Dodik
Photograph: HINA / Tanja VALIČ / TANJUG / mm

Nearly all who went to the polls on Sunday in a disputed referendum on the Bosnian Serb entity's controversial official holiday voted for keeping marking 9 January as the entity's holiday, according to returns from 71% of polling stations.

The referendum was held on Sunday throughout the Serb-dominated areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina on whether residents of the Serb entity are in favour of celebrating the entity day on 9 January, despite the state-level Constitutional Court's decision to declare the holiday illegal and despite the court's recent ban on the referendum.

The Banja Luka-based commission in charge of organising the referendum said on Sunday evening that 99.7% of those who went to the polls said they were for this holiday on 9 January, as shown from the returns from 425,715 counted ballots.

The Commission failed to specify exact data on a turnout, but claimed that it was above the 50% threshold necessary to deem the referendum vote valid.

When declaring the Rupublika Srpska Day illegal in 2015, the Constitutional Court bore in mind that January 9 was evocative of a day in 1992 when a part of Serb deputies in the then parliament of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina unlawfully declared a republic of the Serb people in Bosnia and Herzegovina requesting "territorial demarcation" in relation to Croats and Bosniaks and the integration of the Serb-dominated territory with Serbia. The Serb deputies' behaviour heralded an attempted secession that led to the 1992-1995 war in the country.

Also, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled in November 2015 that marking January 9 as Republika Srpska Day was not in line with the country's constitution because it discriminated against Bosniaks and Croats living in that entity. Thus, the referendum held on Sunday was boycotted by Bosniaks and Croats, and Bosniak leaders also on Sunday evening expressed doubts about the correct data on the turnout.

The referendum was not allowed in the territory of Brcko District, which is a separate territorial unit within Bosnia and Herzegovina, US diplomat Bruce Berton, who is the international community's supervisor for Brcko, decided recently, sending the first concrete warning that the vote, which is considered to be a breach of the Dayton peace agreement, will not be tolerated.

Bosnian Serb entity president Milorad Dodik on Sunday evening expressed satisfaction with "the success of the referendum", and also stated that one should not rule out a similar plebiscite to be held on the status of the entity when time ripened for such a move.

Dodik said at a news conference that Sunday's referendum "has been about the Day of the RS and not about its status."

An angry Dodik answered the question whether there would be a referendum on the secession of the entity claiming that "when time comes, we will talk about that topic." He also underlined that this was also regulated in the programme of his SNSD party. 

Dodik portrayed the country's Constitutional Court as an institution "beyond public control" that made "a disastrous decision" and conducted "political violence".

Bosnia and Herzegovina's collective presidency chairman, Bakir Izetbegovic, who is the Bosnian Muslim leader, said on Sunday that Bosnian Serb chief Milorad Dodik and others engaged in the holding of the unlawful referendum on the entity's holiday would have to face the consequences of that "anti-constitutional and illegal act".

Izetbegovic said that the referendum was a notorious example of the violation of the Dayton peace accords, and that the Bosnian judicial authorities as well as the international community should respond to this insistence of the Bosnian Serb authorities on the referendum.

He also described Dodik's behaviour as irrational stubbornness.

The insistence of the Bosnian Serb leadership on the referendum and on the disputed holiday has already elicited criticism from the most influential Western countries. Officials of Serbia have distanced themselves from the vote. Russian Ambassador Petr Ivantsov was the only one to support the Serb entity, saying that for his country it was a people's inalienable right to organise such a vote.

The Peace Implementation Council Steering Board (PIC SB) recently warned that the decisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina's (BiH) Constitutional Court must be respected and that the referendum on RS Day was against the constitution and the law. Ambassadors of Western countries on the PIC Steering Board said there was no legal basis for voting on whether January 9 should continue to be marked as the day of the Bosnian Serb entity.

"We once again urge the RS authorities not to hold the referendum," the ambassadors said in a statement, adding that "no referendum can change the final and binding nature of decisions of the BiH Constitutional Court," including the one of September 17 banning the referendum. "The decision of the BiH Constitutional Court will remain fully in force and must be respected," the statement said.

Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) president Andrej Plenkovic, who is the Croatian PM-Designate hopeful, said he was against the referendum because it could lead to a referendum on the Serb entity's secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"I'm against that referendum. It could be the first step towards a referendum that would lead to the separation of RS from BiH, which isn't good. That's also the uniform position of the international community, Croatia and all key political stakeholders in the country," Plenkovic told reporters a few days ago. He said it was necessary to work on defusing tensions.

Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic said this past Tuesday that the planned referendum was in contravention of the Dayton peace accords and that she hoped it would not be held. She said Croatia supported the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country of three constitutional peoples, one of which are Croats.

However, leaders from the Croat people in Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to be vague on the issue of referendum.

Bosnian Presidency Croat member Dragan Covic has recently said that he thinks that "absolutely nothing will change on September 26... We are prone to exaggerated tensions, I won't say about a trivial matter so that I don't hurt those who want the date to be defined, because every region, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, has its day, whether municipal or at another level of government," He said then that he told his colleagues that Bosnian Constitutional Court decisions "are not for commenting", just as those of the Peace Implementation Council, regardless of how they were made. Covic said that in Republika Srpska "too much accent has been put on one issue, instead of dealing with life matters."

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